The odd filler word is OK.

Yes, really. There are a few hyper-sensitive people (usually Toastmasters or public speaking coaches :-)) who notice filler words and cringe, but most normal people don’t notice. Or if they do notice, they don’t cringe. Just about everyone uses filler words occasionally. Mike Erard, who wrote a book called Um: Verbal blunders and what they mean reports that one out of 10 or 15 words that people utter is an um or other filler word. I love what  Steve Arrowood has to say about filler words:

Unless you are one of the masterful top 1% of verbally talented and trained public speakers, do not fret about fillers. Fillers are what bean counter minds like to tally mark about another speaker at a Toastmasters event. Ever heard of majoring in the minor? If you hone [sic] in on fillers as your main coaching point, you have no idea what you are doing. Stop It.

The rest of his post on this the topic of filler words is excellent reading – so do click through and read it (once you’ve finished reading this one!)

Sims Wyeth is a speech coach to senior executives. Here’s his view on “filler words“:

I hate speech coaches who don’t let you say “Um!”  I listen to a lot of speakers, and a few “Ums” don’t bother me.  They make the speaker seem normal and conversational.

Research has even shown that an occasional um can increase the audience’s memory for the word that comes after the um.

However, too many filler words do reduce the credibility of the speaker.

How to eliminate filler words

So, if you do really use too many filler words what should you do?

Conventional advice is ineffective

Conventional advice is to first become aware of your fillers:

Some experts like to suggest you put tiny “um” and “ah” stickers on your computer or cell phone to remind you to be listening.

I disagree. This will only make you cringe every time you um.

The second piece of conventional advice is to insert a pause and learn to enjoy the power of silence.

Good speakers enjoy their silence. They take patience between points to let them sit. And when lost allow themselves a few moments of silence to sort things out in their own mind. If you notice when a speaker is silent they draw in more power from the room, like a wave going out before it comes back in.

I agree that pausing and silence are immensely powerful. But silence is a vacuum. And by the time you think to yourself I must pause and be silent, you will have um’ed. Trying to insert a pause is not substantially different from trying to stop saying um. It’s difficult to do.

Focus on chunking

To be effective at stopping the habit you have to focus on something else – something positive that you can do, as an alternative to using a filler word. That alternative is chunking. Chunking is talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks. When you chunk you get into a rhythm: burst of words/break/burst of words/break….Focus on that rhythm and your um’s will go.

Here’s the video that I showed in my You don’t have to slow down post of Tony Blair chunking:

Practice chunking

To begin with it will feel unnatural and uncomfortable. This is normal with  a technique that you haven’t tried before. It’s different from how you normally speak, so just like crossing your arms the opposite way to normal, it will feel weird. You will need to practice chunking before it becomes easy and feels natural to you.

Practice chunking in normal conversation and get comfortable with it, before you try it in a presentation or speech. Most people listening to you won’t notice you’re doing a “technique”. Though they may notice with surprise that you’re not um’ing!

Once you’re comfortable with it, use it in a presentation – and I’d love to know how it goes. Let me know in the comments section.

Note to presentation trainers and speech coaches: With this technique you don’t have to tell people that they use filler words – and have them go through the painful cringe everytime they do it. Just teach them chunking – then let them know that their um’s have gone.

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